Eclectic Reader: Read like a writer

Away by Andrea MacPherson: Book Review and Writing Tip

Before, there might have been children playing in the street, / the rumbling of cars and feet, / but now there is nothing. Taut, stretched stillness. Waiting.

“Walking Shankill Road” (29)

Andrea MacPherson travels in Away — and we travel with her through the magic of her poetry. The journey begins in Ireland, a personal quest where sites and family are sought.

This is the one place you insisted I come,
this place where limestone weeps
and children once played between execution sites
and burial grounds.

So begins “here’s to the wings of a bird” (12) and with it an elusive you, someone who has planted the seed of return, a return instead of, as if MacPherson is visiting the memories of another. Throughout, the time of the “Troubles” persists. In “boundaries” (16), she writes:

We anticipated a stop here,
men with guns and strict faces
(tightropes of unsmiling mouths,
eyes that have seen marchers falling)
a checkpoint at least, with flashlights
turning our faces to ghosts.

Instead there is nothing but seamless conversation;
rapeseed fields.
Trading prayer for something even quieter.

With the poet, we ride through countryside, lulled, until Belfast and RUC men… their guns and tanks.

Somehow we have forgotten about the strife
we had prepared to see, more content
with wavering fields a thousand shades of yellow
and ancient schoolhouses.

These places where people once sat.

The “Troubles” are old; the people we meet are old. It is as if all love and youth have left Ireland. MacPherson captures a poignancy that is haunting. In “the backyard faerie circle” (20), we visit an old man, alone:

A grey cardigan coming apart at the seams,
smelling of sheep and skin and age.
A threadbare chair,
imprinted with the memory of the body
thighs and shoulders and hip bones.
This is what his life has become:
wool and paisley just there.

We learn something of him, his youth and love, but now the small patch of wild roses / left untended, / forgotten in the shade.

The family journey of remembrance crosses the Irish Sea and continues in Scotland where we learn MacPherson’s mother’s mother left with only a rose-gold / wedding band, a few porcelain figurines (“blue salt,” 41). In “Caldrum Street,” MacPherson writes: I take photos to enter a past that is not mine (48); yet the poems lack nostalgia. They are immediate, felt, experienced. History – political and personal – continues to dig deep, becoming, as she says in one poem, fable.

MacPherson’s travels continue to France and Greece. In Paris: A streak of blue paint / thick / across a painter’s cheek (“sketches of Paris, 71). Allusions to artists and their art continue. In “La Goulue & Jane Avril” (77).

You write to me from Toulouse
and I think not of you and the red
city you describe, but of the small
deformed man with miniature legs
(childhood breaks that never quite healed)
who drew cabaret dancers
and whores and faceless men.
Smell the absinthe on his stale breath,
the unwashed quality of his hair.
Dark, dense in the spring sun.

Toulouse is nowhere in those photos,
only the possibility of his compressed figure in the corner,
black coat tails, shriveled leg
fleeting.

In “National Archaeological Museum” (85), Greece, archeology replaces the art trope of France:

[The statues] have all been saved from watery graves,
a shipwreck hundreds of years ago in the Aegean.
They might have been home for minnows,
crustaceous prawns, octopuses;
seaweed might have covered the boy’s eyes,
letting him forget he once had limbs.

As the trip comes to an end, she writes: I dream of the places I will go once home: / thick rainforests, yards of lilac and rose bushes…relearn the taste of green (“the geography of bougainvillea” 89).

Away describes a circle, a going out and a return – to place, to self – and it does so with keen observation and insight. This is Andrea MacPherson’s second book of poetry. It is now one of my favourites to be read and reread.

Hints for Writers 

  1. For writers on personal journeys to places of emigration, Away shows how the quest can embrace the stories of generations, the return (almost) on behalf of parents and grandparents but also open doors to others curious minds. MacPherson travels with purpose, but her list of places and people to see does not blind her. She finds ways to draw readers into her poems; she bridges the personal : universal divide. If this is your journey, read MacPherson with an eye and ear as to how she accomplishes the magic.
  2. The author’s voice is consistent throughout the collection, creating cohesion between poems and sections of the book. MacPherson’s voice is intimate/personal but also knowledgeable. We trust her. We also remain open to the surprises and insights that happen along the journey. Think about how she uses the first person to control what we see and feel and then how she inserts the twist that makes us pause and contemplate the awareness or insight or question revealed.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Away

Mechanics of a Gaze by Branka Petrovic; poetry review and reading/writing tips

Inside his studio, a woman awaits // her turn to be myth

In Mechanics of a Gaze, Branka Petrovic strips the paintings of Gustav Klimt—layer by layer—until only the male gaze is left. Petrovic’s interpretation of the man and his work is not flattering. The poems are irreverent, provocative, skillful and mature.

The structure of the book leads us from insightful—although sometimes devastating profiles—and ekphrastic poems to historical notes and interpretations by others. In the first section (“His Women”), we meet a selection of the women who were model, muse and sexual object. The poems unmask the erotic within Klimt’s studio, sometimes blatantly and sometimes more suggestively.

Whatever’s semi about this nude, it’s not
the way we enter the sketch,
her swift dialogue of the illicit.

Slipped between the poems are excerpts from postcards sent by Klimt to Emilie Flӧge over their long relationship. They continue throughout, presaging the final section and providing an insight into the Klimt-Flӧge relationship and his character.

Next, the focus is on Emilie Flӧge, the woman who was Klimt’s friend, sometimes lover, and lifelong companion. In a poem called “Gustav & Emilie, Petrovic creates a scene (perhaps from a photo taken at her family cottage at Lake Attersee) but then imagines:

If he were to paint you right now,
the vertical lines of your dress
would leak jonquil, mutate

into a metallic-gold,

backdrop; osmanthus sprouting

from your hands….

…Your air,

a brooding saint.

Petrovic at once captures the essence of Klimt’s art and sexual fecundity as evidenced in “osmanthus.” In another poem, she does this with “Calder,” alluding to movement. Petrovic demonstrates a close reading of both the paintings/drawings and the characters that inhabit (and those who created) them. And in five words defines Flӧge and the relationship.

The third section places the gaze on Adele Bloch-Bauer. (You may recall the 2006 movie “The Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren, which takes the point-of-view of Maria Altmann who reclaims the painting of her aunt from the Austrian establishment.)  In one poem, Petrovic expresses the essence of Adele and Klimt as “a Wittgenstein riddle.”

In the fourth section, “Mankind Drifting,” the perspective broadens to include Vienna and the Secessionists’ art (late 19th through early 20th centuries). The Secessionists led the way from traditional-to-modern art in Vienna. The movement turned conservative values on their head, and Gustav Klimt was in the vanguard.  In this section, Petrovic switches focus from Klimt’s portraits to his controversial work for the University of Vienna’s ceilings: Philosophy; Medicine; and Jurisprudence. It is also here that Petrovic returns to Egon Shiele, provocative protégé (“Disabled Sex” appears in the first section).

The final part, “Catalogue Raisonné,” is where we come to found poems and collages, information gleaned from sources such as Wikipedia and the Internet to reviews and the press from The New York Times to The Montreal Gazette. Petrovic’s innovative structuring of the collection leads readers from her subject—the sexualized gaze—of artist and model to the political subject of Nazi looting. With this innovation, Petrovic pushes the convention of most poetry collections.

Branka Petrovic’s debut collection reinvigorates Gustav Klimt and Secessionists’ art. You will never look at the stale gold and mosaic looking greeting cards of Klimt the same. I find Mechanics of a Gaze as invigorating as was the poetry of Sylvia Plath in the 1960s. My guess is that we’ll be hearing more from Branka Petrovic.

 

Tips for Writers

  1. Relevancy: read the poems as a whole, thinking about their subject and relevancy (see Good News for Poets and Readers). As a poet, what role does relevancy to your readers play in your writing? Is relevancy important?
  2. Read each poem for its ekphrastic insight, asking yourself if Petrovic captures the essence of the art. Does the poem work as a poem?
  3. In 2017, I reviewed The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey. Like “Peter Schjeldahl on Gustav Klimt Part 1” and “…Part II” in Mechanics of a Gaze, I have changed my mind somewhat. In that review, I ignored sexual politics and the inherent power of the “gaze.” But after reading The Mechanics of a Gaze, and having witnessed the revelations of the last couple of years, I’ve reread the more sympathetic Kiss. It is Hickey’s fictionalized story of Klimt, written entirely from the point-of-view of Emilie Flӧge. Hickey seeks to get under the skin and into the heart of a woman of the last century. Yet it is all there: the sexualized gaze and acts. Bring your consciousness to Petrovic’s collection. Is Mechanics of a Gaze a feminist collection? If so, does “the message” inform or detract from the work as art?
  4. The Secessionists rejected the orthodox conventions of late 19th-early 20th century Vienna. Their art was rejected by traditional art galleries, so they established their own, a movement toward modernity. Should it be judged/reinterpreted against today’s standards or accepted within its place in history?

 

Available through your local bookstore or online: Mechanics of a Gaze

Also, please see blog 14 The Painted Kiss (2005): The Painted Kiss

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Panicle, poems by Gillian Sze, book review and writing tips

This is how the beginning sounds: an inkstick grinding against stone,
a dark circling like ancient gears. The water blackens from soot;
we paint with the burnt ashes of pine trees.

In “Calligraphy,” the first poem in Panicle by Gillian Sze, we are led into the art of writing which begins: “even before the brush touches the paper.” Sounds and the act of writing—of listening, witnessing, experiencing, reaching essence at the core—permeate Panicle. This is a collection about poetry itself.

In a prose poem, “Sound No2,” she writes:

There are things I want to show you, like the empty pause that encircles desire. Or how Klimt knew that a woman bends her neck that far for a kiss only if she really wants it. I want to show you how quiet it gets when you’re in the company of someone who no longer loves you.

Sze pushes beyond sound and sight, beyond even behavior, in order to explain poetry, as she does in “Bona Fide: or, Setting the Seine on Fire.” She begins by drawing us into “impressionist modes” (do you see the shimmering light?) and note how black differs in Paris where “even the chestnut trees never cast black shadows.” This thrusting of opposites applies to ideas about poetry as much as it does to the words within a poem. After creating the Parisian scene, she notes:

A modernist tells me
he’s searching for genuine tones
in poetry
something authentic, not fugitive…
Something, he repeats, in good faith.

And I tell him
I’m search for natural light.

She brings us back to experience and away from the theoretical voice of the critic.

In “Aubade,” Gillian Sze introduces a hospital room in which she sees “A raised cup / and behind my eyes / a rush of wings;” perhaps a reference to the Eucharist before she turns to nature as “each leaf lifts an eyebrow / and regards the day,” returning us to hope and light. (“Aubade translates from French roughly as auba=dawn + albus=light.) Her play on allusion and sound throughout the collection pares the subject down to its essence.

It seems to me that Sze breaks rules with “Staging Paris: Tableaux Vivants,” ten scenes that she outlines for us, each creating a situation, unresolved. She plays with light and sound. She leaves it to readers to resolve each situation.

My favourite section is the long poem that concludes the collection: “III Guillemets,” although she does not use the chevrons ‹ and › (single or double) in the poem. What is included are sketches by Jessica Hiemstra (please see the previous blog: Apologetic for Joy for Hiemstra-van der Horst’s poetry). The poem is a creative interpretation of Pouvoir du noir by Roland Giguère in which is contrasts black and white and much more in a clear, accessible way. I recommend Panicle for the clarity, contrasts, sound, and skill of Gillian Sze’s poems.

For the writers among us:

  1. Think about the place of sound in your poems;
  2. Think about creating tension through opposites;
  3. Think about leaving the door open for interpretation, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions, as Gillian Sze does in the “Tableaux.”

Available through your local bookstore or online: Panicle

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Apologetic for Joy by Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst for poetry lovers

I ate quince with musicians and contemplated
transformation

In Apologetic for Joy, Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst’s poems not only explore transformation but they also elicit the experience of transformation in her readers. In “Eating Quince with Musicians,” she creates images and takes us beyond the fruit and conversation.

It begins hard and yellow,” she said, needs peeling
and long heat.
Finally it is ambrosia, soft and red.

By the end of the fourth stanza, she weaves through the sensuality of experience, arriving at love and we do not question the transformation. This process unfolds throughout the collection, but sometimes there is a detour on the journey through the poem as there is in “Fingertips Are for Touching” when something discordant jars us into paying attention:

Do I leave a mark on you
when I graze by your chair?
Children understand loneliness
they sit in laps, cry
until they are empty.

Every mark I make
on you, on canvas,
is a brush with infinity, hoping
two of us under covers
see each other without light.

What do children have to do with the light mark she makes as she passes? Are the lonely children a way to tell us what the touch means to Hiemstra-van der Horst? Then we learn the marks she leaves “on you, on canvas…brush with infinity.” Infinity: an immensity, a vastness beyond quantity, beyond qualification. Notice how she leads us “under covers.” Notice how the poem takes us beyond sensuality into the deeper knowing of seeing beneath the surface, the deeper seeing even “without light.” Notice how simple the poem is on the surface of language and image and see how she transforms it into something difficult to quantify.

This is a woman like Daisy Johnson (please see Everything Under) who loves words and mines them for all they are worth. In the section Bad Things Erased by Oranges, Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst travels to Southern Africa and into Setswana, a new language. The poems flow so smoothly the skill she employs could easily be overlooked. Then, with the abruptness of a phone call, she creates a shift and we see where she’s been taking us and the symbolic importance a simple thing like an orange can become.

Although seven sections make up Apologetic for Joy (most leading to sensual transformations), Notes for a Dying Amaryllis is different. It makes me smile despite its subject and situation. Here we meet George and God, two characters I have come to love. Once more, Hiemstra-van der Horst manages to reveal something easily overlooked. In “The Substance of Almost,” she once more sheds light on how she sees:

Gerald’s been complaining about a mouse in the wall.
For weeks I’ve assumed it’s in his head. Everything we see
is mixed with three colours and shades of darkness.

Nothing is quite as it seems. She uses words and painting, which she says in an interview are intertwined (please see “A Stabbing Out of Darkness”). With words, she strips the darkness away as if it was paint on her brush, making the image clear.

I have read Apologetic for Joy many, many times over the winter and into spring. Every reading has taken me deeper while also giving me more pleasure: pleasure in the insights Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst shares about what she sees and where the experience of really seeing (and feeling) can take us. I’ve touched on only three of the seven sections of this collection. If you are a poetry lover—even if you are not—this is a rare book whose themes are pared down to their core. We are both fulfilled and left wanting more.

For the writers among us: Think about the excerpts and how every word is carefully chosen to provide sensual details that lead us to insight. Think about how she uses metaphor and symbol to make the abstract concrete and how she writes between the lines. Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst is also a painter; think about how she integrates both art forms and what that adds to her writing.

Available through your local bookstore or online: Apologetic for Joy

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Capturing a moment of time and light: the art of Daniel Fobert

Daniel Fobert’s art finds strength in the artist’s ability to tell a tale through his work.

By Kathryn MacDonald

Quinte Arts Council

On a cool afternoon last fall, I met Daniel Fobert at Gallery 121 on Bridge Street East in downtown Belleville, where he was exhibiting two oil paintings.

One of Fobert’s greatest strengths is the narrative in his paintings. In Kensington after the Rain, the foreground is taken up by a man gazing at a cell phone, while two friends look on. Behind them, people go about their daily business beneath colourful awnings. Imagine the story.

In the second painting exhibited at Gallery 121, a colourful nude fills the canvas. Here the oils dance in bright rainbow hues. In Untitled, a portrait of an unnamed woman, we have an example of Fobert’s balanced use of complementary colour.

He tells me that his greatest challenge “is to feel that what I do is relevant in the face of a world where everything is non-representational.”

Kensington after the Rain by Daniel Fobert

 

Abstract expressionism has been a dominant trend in Western art since the 1950s led by artists such as Jackson Pollock. Essentially, it defines non-representation work that strives to show the interior energy of experience rather than the outward image. Fobert adds even “[Jean-Paul] Riopelle returned to representational work after developing his renown in abstract expressionism.”

To compose the scene, Fobert uses photography as a guide to street paintings.

He doesn’t copy them; rather, he says, “I translate the photographed scenes into my composition.”

Daniel’s paintings demonstrate his drawing skill and his strength of composition. He also successfully achieves a sense of atmosphere or mood, a quality that is reminiscent of colourful expressionist artists such as LeRoy Nieman, whose name sports fans are especially likely to recognize for his paintings of athletes and sporting events.

Fobert began painting in high school, which is when he decided to “pursue an art career.” After studying graphic arts at Sheridan College—a wide-ranging program that included such courses as life drawing, print making, and colour theory—Fobert became involved with Toronto-based Screen Art Products.

There he was mentored by the owner, Ira Noble, who had studied with Arthur Lismer of Canada’s famous Group of Seven. Fobert eventually became co-owner of the company with his life-partner Mervin Patey. Among their clients were the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Aga Khan Museum. During this period, Fobert “kept his creative spirit alive” by participating in Artists 25, a non-profit artists’ cooperative in Toronto.

A few years ago, Fobert “came home” to the Quinte region. “Part of my retirement goal is giving back,” he says. He is an active member of Gallery 121, the Baxter Art Centre, and the Quinte Arts Council.

To see more of Daniel Fobert’s work or to be in touch, please visit his website: danielfobert.com. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter as well.

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson Book Review and Writing Tips

The places we are born come back. They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia. They are the way we sometimes wake falling….

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson is the story of a daughter, mother, and digging into memory:

If I really cared about you I would put you in a home for your own good. Floral curtains, meals at the same time every day, others of your kind. Old people are a species all of their own. If I really still loved you I would have left you where you were, not carted you here, where the days are so short they are barely worth talking about and where we endlessly, excavate, exhume what should remain buried.

It is the story of words: their creation, meaning, and power:

Occasionally we find those old words sneaking back in and we are undone by them. It’s as if nothing has ever changed, as if time doesn’t mean a jot. We have gone back and I am thirteen years old and you are my awful, wonderful, terrifying mother. We live on a boat on the river and we have words that no one else does. We have a whole language of our own.

And it is a story about fear: naming it, running from it:

One night I wake and you are screaming and screaming. I skid along the corridor, knock you door open, put on the light.

The Bonak is here, you say, and for a moment—because it is night and I am only just awake—I feel a rise of sickening panic.

Johnson’s story reverberates from the present to the past and it balloons into more than a mother’s dementia and a daughter’s search to find meaning behind the words, truth.

Some mornings I am cold with certainty that only some ancient punishment will do, a stoning or a blinding, leaving you out for the wolves. You tell me that you didn’t know and we grow silent and wonder if either of us really believes that. Again and again I go back to the idea that our thoughts and actions are determined by the language that lives in our minds.

Truth is elusive, stretching to include a run-away youth: Margo/Marcus. And it becomes tangled like the weeds beneath the boat, knotted into words woven into the Oedipus myth.

Daisy Johnson has created an original page-turning story that was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2018. Fall into Everything Under and let her laden words carry you like the river’s current.

Reading as a writer:

  1. Gretel, the daughter-narrator, is a lexicographer. Pay attention to the role words play in the story and why Johnson made her a word person. As you read, also consider the naming of people and objects in Johnson’s story. What is the importance of Gretel’s career choice and how does it impact or layer the story? In your writing, what do character’s names bring to your stories? What do their roles contribute?
  2. Can you read “Gretel” without thinking of the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel? What does this allusion bring to Everything Under? Gretel is as lost in her own way as her mother is lost in dementia. Another literary reference is made to the Oedipus myth. Think about your own literary references and ask yourself if they are integral to your story, layering it and deepening the meaning, or if they are superficial and ostentatious.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Everything Under

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys – Book Review and Writing Tips

The sound of children screaming, wood splintering, and life departing roared from behind. I tried to run toward the crowd but the soldier grabbed me and threw me off the road. I crawled through the snow toward the pink of Emilia’s hat and draped my body over hers. (Joana)

I’ve read many books about the atrocities that occurred during World War II and hesitated to open another. I’m glad that I did. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is a timely reminder of the human costs and futility of war.

Salt to the Sea unfolds through the voices of four separate narrators: Joana (a nurse who is haunted by guilt); Florian (an artist whose skill is his fate); Emilia (whose condition is her shame); and Alfred (whose fear propels him toward betrayal and delusion). Joana, Florian and Emilia—along with a blind girl, an old shoemaker, a small boy, and a giant woman—make a hellish journey toward the port at Gotenhafen, walking across Lithuania, East Prussia, and Poland as Russia advances toward Germany and Germany advances toward Russia. Alfred awaits aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a luxury liner refitted to evacuate German military and refugees.

I held the paper, waiting to approach the checkpoint. I stared at the type.… Special pass. It looked real. Perhaps my best work ever. (Florian)

At the lagoon, the refugees must cross there was a strafing, panic of course, then fifteen-year-old Emilia:

We waited on the bank for several hours but the planes did not return. The water froze again. So did our hands and feet.

I held my breath as we crossed, quivering at the thought of our Ingrid frozen beneath. The ice ached and groaned, like bones carrying too many years, brittle and threatening to snap at any moment.

Alfred, already aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff is a frightened boy, a boy in the German navy:

This would be my first-ever journey at sea. My maiden voyage had already presented its challenges. I noticed an unbecoming rash had appeared on my hands and in my armpits. I blamed the Communists.

These excerpts do not begin to demonstrate the page-turning intensity of the story. Sepetys does not wow with vocabulary or overwrought emotion. She lets each of her narrators slowly reveal their character and together their voices accumulate to tell the larger, universal horrors of thousands of women, old men and children crossing treacherous landscapes and borders (the young men—except for Florian—have been conscripted).

I highly recommend Salt to the Sea. I’m a slow reader but the bedside lamp was lit most of two nights straight and the last page was read before the weekend was over.

For the writers among us:

  1. The point of view of the narrator affects what readers are told and how they respond to a story. The story of the three little pigs would be different if told from the wolf’s perspective rather than an omnipotent narrator who is sympathetic to the pigs’ plight. Think about Sepetys use of multiple narrators and what she may be attempting to achieve that she could not achieve with a single narrator.
  2. As Robert Fulford wrote in The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture, “There is no such thing as just a story. A story is always charged with meaning, otherwise it is not a story, merely a sequence of events. [T]here is no such thing as value-free story.” As you read, think about the values embedded in Salt to the Sea. What is Sepetys telling us about war and its victims?
  3. Do you write (or will you attempt writing) stories with multiple points-of-view? What can you learn from Ruta Sepetys’ Salt and the Sea? Poets too: accept the challenge.

All this…and we did not even touch on researching and writing historical fiction! Another time perhaps.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Salt to the Sea